The Nieuw Universiteit: reclaiming the academy

March 27, 2015


In early March, students at the University of Amsterdam occupied the Maagdenhuis and proclaimed a movement they called Nieuw Universiteit, which is pretty easy to translate into English and you’ve probably guessed it. Their complaints were outlined in a letter to the governing board of the university, and included the following demands:


  • “An immediate moratorium on restructuring processes, negotiations and sale of UvA property, and institutional mergers;
  • That the CvB immediately agrees to initiate a detailed proposal on how it intends to facilitate a democratization of the UvA and restore the relations of trust it has undermined, or else resign from their posts;
  • To initiate a full investigation by an independent committee of the university’s financial policies and current state of affairs.


These are preconditions for, not a consequence of, a university-wide discussion, which must result in the implementation of the following processes:


  • Shifting the weight of a quantitative, output-based financial model to qualitative forms of evaluation, including peer and student review;
  • Fostering a genuine academic environment where research and teaching are combined, and countering the present tendency to split these activities into a two-tier system that rewards the former at the expense of the latter;
  • Defining equitable workloads in teaching, research, and administration, and creating visible and accessible paths to career development for temporary and permanent staff alike.”


Their movement sparked the support of academics as well as students, who have all been holding educational sessions at the Maagdenhuis, and attempting to develop a forum for discussing and ultimately fixing the problems in modern universities like UvA. Having been for some time a part of the evolving education millieu in The Netherlands, I can attest to the seriousness of the issues they raise. The economic crisis in Europe led the Dutch, who hate the idea of debt seemingly more than any other European country except perhaps Germany, to undergo drastic restructuring efforts at their prestigious, world-renowned universities – many jobs were lost and emphasis was shifted toward bringing in outside money. Among the sorts of changes that were implemented were mergers and even elimination of programs, heavily tilted at the humanities. The humanities, after all, don’t bring in the multi-million euro funding that the sciences generally bring. In an effort to save themselves, humanities programs have been urged to bring in yet more funding from increasingly diminishing and competitive sources. The nature of Dutch scientific funding is such that, once you bring in a grant, your chances of bringing in more increase, and over time only a small, select pool of researchers seem to hold title to the bulk of the funds. Grant money earns you the “privilege” of not teaching, as you devote yourself to the research, often performed by graduate students who are hired with the grant money. The two-tiered system the students who took the Maagdenhuis complain of is spot-on. As has happened over time in the US, where teaching devolves to non-permanent adjuncts so tenured professors can pursue their research without the bother of so much teaching, so too is this happening in Europe but via other mechanisms.

Other phenomena seem also to be copied from the US model following the 80s, in which Universities concentrate on expanding their patent portfolios, tech-transfer schemes and incubators, and invest in land, all in an effort to build a solid set of numbers representing endowments, showing their solvency, even while tuitions rise. The students occupying the Maagdenhuis suggest that this is an unhealthy trend. I agree. It demeans the importance of a solid liberal arts education, and it perverts the nature of research and education, shifting it always toward money. In my primary field of Philosophy, where I had to take part in this trend for several years, I was constantly bemused and baffled. Frankly, I don’t need grants to do philosophy, just as I doubt many historians, mathematicians, language arts professors, etc. likely don’t need much more than a salary and a bit of time. Teaching takes some time, but it also provokes (at least for me) deeper thought and learning on the part of the teacher. My books have benefitted by my teaching, in which I can test and challenge ideas with helpful classroom exchanges. I always come away from teaching a course having learned something. It isn’t a bother, and if you see it as one, you aren’t really what I consider to be a professor.

Students around the world are beginning to realise that the current neoliberal model and trend is doing a disservice to them, and now the Nieuw Universiteit movement is influencing similar actions in Canada and the UK, including at the London School of Economics and the University of Toronto. This is encouraging, and especially so since professors are also prominent parts of these movements. If the university is to save its soul and remain a bastion for liberal education, then administrators are going to have to listen. Science, the humanities, research, and the mission of education are too important to be bought and sold to build endowments. The only endowments that matter are the characters and intellects of university students and professors, and the growth of our general font of knowledge which has been traditionally and correctly preserved in institutions like universtities. Hopefully, the New University can provide a refuge for that spirit and help spark a sea change in the humanities and sciences and their critical role in liberal, humanistic societies.